An Oxymoronic Gospel
Updated: May 18, 2022
St. Philip Lutheran Church
15 May 2022 + Fifth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Josh Evans
What if I told you that one of my favorite books in the entire Bible was the book of Revelation?
You might look at me like I had two heads, which, frankly, sounds like something you might read about in the book of Revelation.
Every third year in our lectionary cycle during the Easter season, we hear stories from the book of Revelation. And while Revelation might not seem especially “Easter-y” at first glance, I think Revelation is really the most Easter-y it gets.
In fact, alongside the resurrection accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Revelation is itself gospel – a story of Christ’s victory over the power of death and the forces of evil. It doesn’t get much more “Easter-y” than that.
Let’s back up a bit. This week’s reading shows us the ending, but last week’s reading helped set the scene – a scene steeped in oxymoron.
We use oxymorons all the time, often without even thinking about what we’re actually saying: old news, same difference, original copy, seriously funny, historical fiction. All unique phrases, with their own meanings, but made up of two seemingly contradictory words or images.
Here’s another one: Our Lamb has conquered.
It’s not exactly the picture of a mighty, conquering animal. And yet, there in the oxymoron, is great hope and good news.
A couple of things to know:
First: The author of Revelation lived during a time when the Roman Empire dominated. Rome was all about world domination. Rome’s idea of world “peace” was a world that would be entirely ruled by them – which was great, if you were an upper-class Roman citizen, but it came at a costly price for nearly everyone else. And if you didn’t buy into Rome’s vision, Rome had ways of making your life difficult.
Second: The author of Revelation and his fellow Christians fell squarely in this latter camp. He hated Rome, and writing Revelation was his way of showing it. In a world where those who opposed Rome’s vision drew the short straw, Revelation presents another way. The current system of Roman domination was not the way it had to be, and indeed there is another way: the way of the Lamb.
We first meet this Lamb early in Revelation. The scene is classic apocalypse literature – not in the sense of world-ending destruction but revealing, which is what “apocalypse” actually means. In that scene, there’s a scroll that must be opened, but there’s no one “worthy” to open it … except: the Lion of the tribe of Judah who has conquered! Surely the mighty, conquering lion is worthy! This would have been an expected, predictable move in apocalyptic literature, where the figure of a fierce animal stood at key plot-advancing moments.
But what emerges instead? A lamb – and one that looks as though it’s been slaughtered? A far cry from the conquering lion. This is a surprising plot twist that begs for attention.
A few chapters later, in the scene we read last week, “a great multitude that no one could count” is gathered around God’s throne and acclaims this Lamb as the one who brings salvation: Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to God and the Lamb forever!
No wonder we get these texts from Revelation in our lectionary readings this Easter season. These are texts that inspire our canticles of praise and hymns of Easter triumph:
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing,
praise to our victorious king!
For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign!
This is the feast of victory for our God! Alleluia!
Indeed, Revelation helps us sing our way into God’s new, Easter vision for our world – proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and victory over the power of death and the forces of evil.
The Lamb we sing of is an unexpected character in Revelation, and the victory of the Lamb is an unexpected plot twist. You’d expect Roman military conquest to be met with reactionary military might and revolution.
But that’s not the way of the Lamb. That’s not the way our Lamb conquers. Instead, we get the image of the slain but living Lamb who shows us that God’s self-giving love is stronger than anything the empire can muster.
“Lamb power,” one theologian calls it.
Just this weekend, I had the opportunity to join with other Glenview and Chicagoland faith leaders, political figures, and other community members at the Ismaili Jamatkhana for a special luncheon for Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of Ramadan, and its associated discipline of fasting, for Muslims around the world.
One of the speakers, who gave an overview of the significance of Ramadan, also shared a short story about the prophet Muhammad. As he was beginning his prophetic career, Muhammad’s message among the people of Mecca, where he was from, was not particularly well-received. (Sounds a little like another religious leader closer to home, doesn’t it?)
The story goes that an elderly woman living in Mecca was so disgusted with Muhammad’s message that she would wait until he passed by her house, just to throw garbage on him from her window. This happened so often that Muhammad had simply come to expect it, until one day, when he passed by, no garbage fell on him.
While many of us, myself included, would take that a small victory and go about our day garbage-free, Muhammad became concerned. He knocked on the door of this woman’s house, and when she answered, he found her in bed, so ill she couldn’t get up.
Instead of seeking revenge or shaming her for her cruelty, Muhammad started taking care of the woman. So stunned at Muhammad’s unwarranted kindness toward her, the woman became emotional, profusely apologizing for her past mistreatment of him and vowing never to do it again.
An oxymoron if ever there was one. But it is an oxymoron steeped in hope and good news. An oxymoron that is nothing less than resurrection gospel.
It doesn’t make sense to us. And yet, the gospel is subversive like that – upending all our expectations and offering us something so much more profound.
This subversive gospel looks like the love that Jesus encourages his disciples to have for one another, the kind of love with which he loved them even to the end, the kind of love that stoops down to wash feet and that stretches wide its arms on the cross.
The kind of love that eats with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers, without judgment or prerequisite to change.
The kind of love that offers tender mercy and kindness in the face of acts of garbage-spewing hatred, the kind of love that builds bridges instead of walls.
The kind of love that conquers all things.
No empire, no system of oppression, no form of injustice, no act of hate – nothing – can overcome this Lamb Power.
This is the message of Revelation, and this is our Easter proclamation and the oxymoronic gospel truth: Our Lamb has conquered. Our Lamb has conquered all evil and injustice. Our Lamb has conquered death and destruction. Our Lamb has conquered oppression and hatred.
Our Lamb has conquered, and so we can shout: Alleluia! Christ is risen!